What does a native of Ottawa, Canada know about the new Southern cuisine? Turns out, plenty. Hugh Acheson, the chef behind the Athens, Georgia restaurant Five and Ten and a participant in Top Chef: Masters Season 3, has a keen understanding of the traditions of Southern cuisine but enough irreverence to reinvent the classics. Not too many cookbooks feature an introduction from the manager of a rock band but it makes perfect sense to have the manager of R.E.M., the band that put Athens, Georgia on the map, laud the town’s culinary adopted son. After all, Acheson’s cookbook, A New Turn In The South, isn’t just a celebration of Southern food it is also a love note to small-town life below the Mason Dixon line.
The book is full of new twists on Southern favorites. You’ll find boiled peanuts reinvented as hummus, pickled shrimp and that picnic favorite, deviled eggs. Acheson, who can be seen taking a turn at judging on “Top Chef” this season, is one of the stars of the new Southern cuisine which relies on traditional ingredients (okra, crawfish, grits etc.) but finds new ways to tell the story of country cooking, blending in techniques used in fine cuisine. The Southern restaurant tradition of the meat and three is celebrated in this book with plenty of vegetable options including some less familiar offerings such as cardoon gratin and saffron-braised celery. Acheson sees himself as the “block parent” of some of unloved and less popular vegetables including the much-maligned okra.
Those who have embraced the current trend for canning will be particularly interested in the chapter that focuses on “put-ups” such as bread and butter pickles and tomato chutney. The desserts are rich in local tradition with offerings such as lemon chess pie, apple brown Betty and the classic peach pie. The use of sorghum as a sweetener in several recipes adds both a traditional note and added richness of flavor.
The book’s homespun design with rough drawings and a scrapbook-like style suits the plain-spoken flavors in the food offered. Acheson isn’t just showing the food here, he’s telling a story about a region and a lifestyle. He’s painting a picture with andouille sausage, catfish, cornmeal and collards. The ramshackle style of the book, mixing illustrations, photos, handwritten notes and scrapbook-like backgrounds, gives the book a potluck-like feel and help the book’s Southern heart shine through. This food isn’t the most elegant but it is resonant with history and honors the legacy of home cooks and small restaurants alike.